Retired 60-year veteran law enforcement officer Stephen Tabeling and award-winning investigative journalist Stephen Janis discuss the selective prosecution in the early years of the “War on Drugs” and how dirty police and politicians repeatedly thwarted justice (3/4)


Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: As we continue our discussion on the impact of the war on drugs on Baltimore, we’re now joined by two guests here in our Baltimore studio. We’re joined by Stephen Tabeling. He’s the coauthor of You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He’s a retired Baltimore City homicide lieutenant. He also served as the chief of police of Salisbury, Maryland. From 2000 to 2009, he was called out of retirement to teach at the police academy in Baltimore. We’re also joined by his coauthor, Stephen Janis. He’s an award-winning investigative journalist currently working as an investigative producer for FOX45. Thank you both for joining us again. STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER, FOX45: Thanks for joining us. NOOR: So, Stephen Tabeling, I think one of the most explosive revelations in your book is your experience with the special narcotics task force. In the early 70s you were part of this task force that was going after the roots of the drug trade, the illicit drug trade in Baltimore as it began, exploded, I guess, in the late ’60s and the early ’70s. You were going after where it was coming from, who was running the drugs. And as soon as you found that politicians were implicated in it, the police commissioner, he shut down your investigation. Tell us what happened. LT. STEPHEN TABELING, FMR. CHIEF OF POLICE, SALISBURY, MD: Well, that’s part of it. And in around 1971 or ’72, Milton Allen put together a program, a federally funded program, and I had the best minds of Pete Ward, who was a former judge; Tom Bollinger [spl?]; Joe Murphy, who was the–he was the chief justice in the Court of Special Appeals; Steve Tully. I had the best advisers in the state’s attorney’s office, prosecutors. These people all wound up to be judges. What we did is we formed this unit called the narcotics strike force, and we also had a phone line called Baltimore Against Narcotics, and people would call in and give us information over the phone. Some of this phone information led to arrest of some of the top people in drugs. In fact, there was a drug store on the corner of Light Street and Baltimore Street, which is now a McDonald’s, Morgan Millard. That place was closed up because of a drug dealer by the name of “Big Head Brother”, his nickname was. He was buying methamphetamines by the hundreds of thousands in there. That came about from a telephone call. What we would do if the districts would have information on narcotics, maybe a low-level person, I would give him the money, and here’s what we’d say. You go investigate it. Here is your money for it to make your buys. I want all the information back, I want the intelligence, because we were putting together the different organizations in Baltimore City. And we were doing a pretty good job. We had one called the Golden Spoon Club that came out of Atlanta, Georgia. We had a name got guy named Tucker that owned a tavern up on Greenmount Avenue. We had a whole program put together. Now, as we were doing these investigations, some drugs were stolen out of the property room, and the drugs were stolen by police officers who went to court. Instead of returning the real thing, I think they returned flour or something like that. And the guy in the property room got suspicious of it and found out that there was a colonel in the police department that was trying to cover this up. He didn’t want anything to happen. We had a prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office they didn’t want to hear that. He wanted to go after him. So, as we started the investigation, two police officers were involved. And, in fact, we had a special grand jury at that time. What people don’t understand about grand juries a lot of the time: they’re investigative bodies also. And we had this drug deal going through this special grand jury. As a result of that, the police commissioner was called before the special grand jury because somebody in the department was covering it up. And we know it was a colonel. But, I mean, he was a former FBI agent. And we know he was covering this up. Well, when we bring the police commissioner before the special grand jury and then have the information about the colonel, I’m standing in my office one day, and one of the colonel’s sergeants came in, handed me an envelope. And I said, what’s this? He said, well, I don’t know; the colonel gave it to me. I said, you know what it is. It was an immediate transfer. Now, in the office at the time, working for Milton Allen, was a lieutenant named Tom Coppinger [spl?], who wound up to be a major. Tom Coppinger wasn’t involved in the narcotics strike force. But because Tom Coppinger was working for Milton Allen, he also got an immediate transfer. I get my immediate transfer, and I’m to report to the chief of patrol. And I go to the chief of patrol’s office, and he said, you sit in that office over there. You’re not to have any contact with any press. You’re not to answer the telephone. You just sit there. I said, just sit there. And then I get orders that I’m in the community relations program in the northern district. I go to the community relations program in the northern district, and this was–for me it was a nothing job. And I finally went to the police commissioner and I said, I want to join the homicide squad. And the captain in the homicide squad was a friend of mine. And I went in the homicide squad. But before I went into homicide squad, in my time in the districts we investigated every conceivable crime. It was just when Palmerloo [spl?] came in the 1960s that he centralized things. NOOR: And there was another case where you were investigating a drug dealer in Mount Vernon. TABELING: Yeah, I was about to get to that. NOOR: Okay. TABELING: I had–this wasn’t in the strikeforce when I was in the narcotics as a sergeant. When I was in the narcotics squad, I had information about people selling drugs, and I had some undercover people working for me. And we had this young man there that was selling us cocaine, and we were buying it with $50 bills. And I had all the $50 bills marked and everything. And when we make the arrest, his place looked like a drugstore. Well, he was the governor’s director for law enforcement, Governor Mandel. NOOR: And what year was this? TABELING: This would have been about ’69, ’70, somewhere [in there (?)], because I got promoted to lieutenant in ’71 or ’72, and that’s when I went to the strikeforce. Well, when we made about 15 raids, and he was one of them, when he came in when he was arrested, I sent a detective down to property room, said bring up that envelope, opened up the envelope, and we took the money out of his pocket and said, do these look familiar? And there was the copies [of that (?)]. Now, when the case went to court, he got probation without a verdict. I–. NOOR: It’s a slap on the wrist. TABELING: Yeah. Well, what happened with me was the police commissioner said to me, you are not sensitive enough to politics. NOOR: What does that mean? TABELING: Don’t lock up a politician, I guess. So what really happened was I had a lieutenant at the time, and I had been working this undercover thing. And I said to him, lieutenant, I have this person. Here is his name, and he works for me and Bill. Oh, good; you let me know when you’re going to make the arrest. Okay. It’s about 4 o’clock in the morning. I waited till about six and called the lieutenant at his home, and I said, I’m going to charge this guy. And here is who it is. It’s verified. Yes, Steve, you go ahead and do it. And he denied that I told him, and the police commissioner did not know that the raid was made. I’m the sergeant. I’m reporting to my commanding officer. He denied that I ever talked to him. JANIS: One thing I would mention about–’cause Steve gave me all the information and the details about the strikeforce, and it was so different from the way the drug war has been prosecuted since, because it really was information gathering about an entrenched business that had sort of replaced the city’s industrial base and sort of taken over neighborhood by neighborhood. But what Steve was doing was so unusual. It was really learning about the problem and diagnosing it rather than what became sort of the run-and-gun corner attack of the Police Department, but really doing a broad–I’ve never seen anything like it before–investigation, where he really knew what was going on in the city’s drug trade throughout every neighborhood. And I think that struck me as so different from the approach that’s since sort of evolved out of zero-tolerance, where they just target what’s visible and arrest and make arrests and make lots of [incompr.]. Steve was doing the exact kind of opposite thing, which was really learning the core of the problem. And that core of the problem was [inner tribal (?)] politics, is of course, as you’re probably going to talk about with Turk Scott, who is the state delegate, was another case that he investigated, although it was a federal case. But, again, it was all intertwined with the upper echelons of Baltimore City society. You know, it wasn’t just a couple of guys on the street. It was very organized. NOOR: And I just wanted to jump in. And I guess the inability or the unwillingness of the law enforcement to really go after politicians that were implicated in this, I mean, I’m sure it must have contributed to this lack of trust between the communities, where they were getting locked up by the hundreds and the thousands, and the fact that if you were someone with connections, you are going to get a free pass or a slap on the wrist. TABELING: Well, the governor’s director for law enforcement sit on the witness stand and said, I really have no animosity towards the lieutenant. Yeah, he had no animosity toward him. His house looked like–his apartment looked like a drugstore, and he’s getting a slap on the wrist. And I’m almost getting fired because the police commissioner said I was not sensitive enough to politics, and also my lieutenant never went to the police commissioner and told him what was happening. And I told him, and he denied it, that I told him anything. So, listen, some of these cops got a tough road, because you’ve got lieutenants, and they want to go higher, and they’re going to do anything that they can if they’ve got to use these young officers to do it. Now, just one quick thing. They have training officers out on the street that train police before they go on their own. I had a guy that was out of police academy six months–six months–and he came into in-service training and he had a badge on him that said “Training Officer”. I said, you’ve only been out six months. He said, well, nobody else wants the job. And that’s a trainer. NOOR: So I want to wrap up this segment. But I do want to quickly, in our next segment, talk about Black October and the murder of State Delegate Turk Scott. So thank you again for joining us. JANIS: Thank you. Thank you. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

End

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Stephen Janis

Host & Producer

Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.

Stephen Tabeling

Stephen Tabeling is the co-author of You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. Tabeling is a retired Baltimore City Homicide Lt., who also served on the police force for Salisbury, Maryland; from 2000-2009 he was called out of retirement to teach at the police academy in Baltimore.